Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Gluepot

March 31, 2009

The battle over plywood looks like a minor skirmish compared to the great glue debate. “Of all the materials that go into a plywood boat,” acknowledged boat builder and author Dynamite Payson, “the choice of glue causes the most controversy.” And for understandable reasons. The glue must hold the boat together, even under extreme stress, and even when the boat is soaked to the bone. Obviously, I need something more than Elmer’s Glue-All. I don’t want to be in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay when my hull decides to separate into its constituent parts.

So I go back to the various woodworking forums and, once again, I am thrust into a vigorous debate. Predictably, it comes down to two sides: Dominating the debate are those who believe that “only the best will do.” For them, the only category of adhesive a responsible and farsighted boat builder would consider is marine epoxy. There are several brands, but all are sold in two parts (which is why they are often called “two part epoxy”) that are mixed together just before applying. They are expensive and messy, but they produce a very strong and completely waterproof bond.

The Stevenson boat, however, calls for something called plastic resin glue. It is sold as a powder, mixed with water, and applied with a paintbrush. It’s an old standby and cheaper than epoxy.

Without any preconceived opinions, I’m ready to follow the recommendations of the boat’s designers, but comments made by the online boat building community give me pause. Because plastic resin glue doesn’t fill gaps in wood, as epoxies do, water can seep in and weaken the bond, they say. Others point out that it is less waterproof than epoxies and is, in fact, no longer officially listed as a “waterproof” glue. It doesn’t hold up in boiling water tests, which mean that, if placed for an extended period of time in boiling water, the bond can fail.

Suddenly, I find myself second-guessing the boat’s designer. Why go with an inferior and possible risky product? The comments made by epoxy purists feed on my uncertainty.

Hunting for some clarity, I email the Stevenson’s and gently ask if they still feel confident in their glue recommendation. In a friendly reply the next day, Pete Stevenson confirms he faith in plastic resin glue, with a useful caveat: “We’ve never had problems with the plastic resin glue for small boats like ours that are dry-sailed (kept on a trailer)” In other words, the glue works for boats that don’t live in the water. Well, that’s fine, because that’s exactly what I am building—a boat that is dry sailed.

I feel even better when I read what Dynamite Payson had to say about glues in his book, Instant Boatbuilding with Dynamite Payson. “I was brought up on the old-fashioned Weldwood plastic resin, and I never had any glue failures,” he wrote. “The epoxy glues available today are better still, and I’m all for them, but how much strength do you need?”

Once I understand the practical strengths and limitations of the product, I feel reassured and confidently order a 4.5 pound can of glue from my local hardware store.

As a caveat, both Pete Stevenson and Dynamite Payson also endorse some of the latest “squeeze bottle” glues (as I call them), such as Gorilla Glue and Titebond III, which are both rated as waterproof. I briefly consider taking this more radical path, but decided to take the slightly more conservative route by using the more tried and true product.

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In Which I Worry About Plywood

March 29, 2009

Most of my boat is built from plywood, so choosing the right kind was my first concern. Most of the plywood sold in lumberyards and home centers is not waterproof and not suitable for boats. That leaves boat builders with two choices. The first is exterior grade plywood, which, as the name implies, is intended for outside use. Basic, run of the mill “ACX” exterior plywood looks just like regular plywood found at any lumberyard or home center, but its redeeming virtue is that it is held together with waterproof glue. It’s more expensive than interior plywood, but not by much.

The second option is “marine grade” plywood. This kind of plywood, I learned, is fundamentally identical to exterior grade plywood, with one important difference: it is made without voids. Apparently, most plywood has small air pockets in the interior laminations. These gaps can allow water to seep in, weaken and eventually rot the hull no matter how conscientiously the boat builder paints or epoxies the exterior. Prices for the least expensive marine grade wood is roughly twice that of exterior plywood; the cost climbs rapidly for marine grade plywood made from exotic, imported woods, especially something called “okoume,” a tropical hardwood that seems to be much prized by the boat building community.

The concern about “voids” sounds worrisome (“Voids: The Hidden Killer”), but I resist spending more than necessary on a first time effort that is not meant to be an heirloom. I remind myself of my goal: build a boat that can gracefully sail down the Chesapeake Bay and maybe last for a few more years while I plot my next steps. Spending too much money on unnecessary quality is simply wasteful. More than that, it starts to take the fun out the whole enterprise. Where’s the sense of adventure when my small act of middle age rebellion starts to cost more than the family minivan?

But am I making a mistake? For insight, I start searching the many online boat building forums. I quickly learn that among professional boat builders and ambitious hobbyists,  ACX carries as much clout as Spam and Cheez Whiz. Again and again, I watched hapless novices ask, in some fashion, the following question:

Hey guys! I’m new to boat building, but can’t wait to get started. I want to build something with my son that won’t break the bank and will give us some fun on the local lake. I’m wondering if I can use exterior grade plywood. Marine grade plywood sounds nice, but, gosh, it sure is expensive! Let me know what you think.

Here’s a typical reply, posted on one forum by a builder with the moniker “Betelgeuserdude:”

“Quality of plywood has generally been falling into the abyss for decades. ACX will do the trick for a quick and dirty boat, upon which you will place little value or trust. The use of ACX is very poor economy, in my opinion. My labor is by far, the more expensive portion of the construction of any boat. If I have to burn the boat after a few years, or replace the poor initial materials with the materials which I should have used, my expensive labor is wasted.” (http://www.boatdesign.net/forums/materials/acx-plywood-2253.html)

Fair enough. But aren’t there times when less expensive materials make sense? When I was a novice woodworker, I developed my skills by cutting and shaping inexpensive pine boards, not oak or cherry. Only when I had confidence in my skills did I begin experimenting with more costly woods. So if I view this as an experiment, a way to test the water, as it were, isn’t ACX good enough? Betelgeuserdude offered grudging endorsement of this philosophy. “If all you wish to do is slap together a small boat, upon which you will endeavor to enjoy a few seasons of use, by all means use ACX.”

Not all boat builders have such a low opinion of exterior grade plywood. Among the “get it done and get sailing” crowd, there is a tolerance for mid-priced materials and shorter life spans. An article posted on Messing About Boats.com captured the zeitgeist of this community. “I’m a cheapskate,” the author wrote, without sounding very apologetic, “and used what people commonly call “exterior” grade plywood from Home Depot. I’m not planning to leave my boat in the water, and if it lasts 5 – 10 years or so, that’s fine with me.” (http://www.messing-about.com/weekender/woodFAQ.html)

Five to ten years sounds fine to me, too–plenty of time to build my next (and better) boat.

By now my plans arrived and the Stevenson’s bill of materials helped settle the question. At the top of the page it called for twelve sheets of “ACX exterior grade plywood.” That tipped the balance, although I had—and still have—some reservations about my choice.


Finding the Boat of My Dreams, Part II

March 27, 2009
The Stevenson Pocket Cruiser

The Stevenson Pocket Cruiser

In the world of pocket cruisers, a designer named Phil Bolger figures prominently. Over his long and prolific career, he has designed all kinds of boats, including large and traditional craft. But he is probably best known for his small and aggressively unconventional plywood sailboats. Critics say they are ugly; with high flat sides and large, visually top-heavy cabins, they are the opposite of the curvy and aerodynamic boats over which most sailors swoon. His many supporters argue that his willingness to break the rules lets him design innovative and practical boats.

A typical Bolger design is a twenty-three foot cruiser he calls the “Birdwatcher,” which features a glass cabin extending from stem to stern—imagine a low greenhouse stretching over the entire deck. This lets the sailor and crew head out in all weather—including rain and cold—without inconvenience and enjoy panoramic views even when inside. The imagined owner is a nature lover who plies inland lakes and deltas. It’s an exciting concept, but visually strange. Bolger admits in his candid writing style that “the class has been slow to catch on, partly because of the principle is alien.” It doesn’t help that the boat’s auxiliary power is a set of oars, not the conventional outboard motor.

But the most widely built Bolger boat is called the Micro, and this is where I started to focus my interest. First designed for a retired clergyman for sailing on Tampa Bay it was, Bolger wrote, “one of my best efforts, and a fleet of the boat has been built from New Zealand to Finland.” Typical of his plywood designs, it has vertical sides and squat appearance. But it also has many attractive features. Its simple design means relatively simple construction and, while it is just over fifteen feet long, it has a relatively spacious cabin–nothing fancy, but certainly enough room for some supplies and a couple of sleeping bags. Out of the water, it looks like an overgrown bathtub, but in the water and under sail, it has a certain amount of style, even with its boxy hull and blunt bow.

Plans for the boat are sold through Common Sense Boats. I bookmarked the site and placed the Micro as the top contender.

Competing for my attention, however, were several boats designed by Peter and Mike Stevenson. The most widely built design is called the Weekender, which first appeared in a 1981 edition of Popular Science. Plans are now sold online by the Stevenson’s, along with several other boats similar to the Weekender, including a longer version called the Vacationer and a wider version called the Pocket Cruiser. Construction methods are much like the Micro—plywood and screws produce a watertight box with sails. But aesthetically, Stevenson designs are more traditional in appearance. Although it is about the same length as the Micro, the Weekender is low, narrow, sleek and obviously inspired, as the Stevenson’s write, by “the golden age of sail.” It has an elegant bowsprit and even makes use of a very salty looking wheel, instead of the usual tiller.

I thought the Weekender was prettier than the Micro—most people do. But I had my doubts. The Weekender sacrifices cabin space for looks and while the designers say it can sleep two, they acknowledge that space is tight. And for some reason I fretted about ballast; the Micro is ballasted, which helps it bounce back if knocked over. The Weekender is unballasted. Is flat bottom is relatively stable (according to the designer) but some saw the lack of lead weight in its keel to be a worrisome flaw.

My heart said Weekender, but by head said Micro. What to do? I decided to consult an expert.

Across the country I have an uncle, a retired mathematics professor and university administrator. He’s a talented builder and a skilled mechanic. He designed and built a beautiful house in the desert, working, as is his style, with infinite care and patience. He’s also a life-long sailor who for many years owned and lovingly maintained his own sailboat. His skills and knowledge are wide and deep; he can sail by the stars, rebuild an engine, and stay calm in a storm. He once sailed to Hawaii and made numerous trips down the California coast. He’s also the kindest man I know. I would believe whatever he told me.

I decide that I would let him make the decision. The Micro was the leading contender and, I felt, the more sensible choice. I wrote him a letter, outlining my plans and sent him a link to a Web site with photos and information about the Bolger design. I reminded him that I need a simple boat, but something that would safely take me around the Chesapeake Bay. Would the Micro satisfy my needs?

His response was not encouraging. “I have some reservations,” he began. He elaborated thusly:

“I don’t like the location of the sails. The main sail is too far forward. Stepping the mast, and raising, lowering and reefing the sail would not be convenient with the mast that far forward. Working on the bow is never pleasant, especially if the boat is rolling. And I see no mention of life lines. And the mizzen mast is too far back. It seems to me that tending that sail would be quite awkward because the sail is sticking out behind the boat.”

Ok, I couldn’t understand at least half of what he said, but it sounded serious. I went back to the Micro’s plans and, with a slightly more sophisticated eye, could see his concern about the sails. How do you get to the mast, anyway?

Worse still, my sensible uncle questioned my entire plan. As fair warning to all future boat builders, this is what he said:

“You say that you want to build a boat and if that is your primary goal, then I guess you’ll have to build a boat. But if your primary goal is sailing, then I do not recommend that you build a boat. I recommend that you buy a good used fiberglass boat that meets your needs. The lines of a home-made wood boat are never as sweet as those of a fiberglass boat either in appearance or for moving through the water.

“Building a boat is a big job. After the hull is built, you have to paint or polyurethane it. You have to install running and anchor lights and the other safety equipment required by law. You have to buy sails, which I noticed cost $1300.00 plus shipping for the Micro. You have to buy halyards and sheets as well as pulleys, cleats, and other hardware. You need to buy anchors and anchor rodes. You need to buy the ballast. You need to buy an outboard motor and fuel can. You need to buy some kind of a stove to prepare meals and you need to have fresh water on board. These are just the obvious things. I could probably come up with more if I thought about it. And then, after your boat is finished, you need to buy a trailer.”

These observations are not easily ignored. He was telling me that boat building is harder and more expensive than I thought. Worse still, he believed I would end up with an inferior craft.

I spend the next day or two rethinking everything. Why engage in the exercise of building the boat when, for a few thousand dollars (or less), I could be on the water long before I finished building the keel? That’s what normal sailors do. But even as I considered this more sensible path, I could almost feel my enthusiasm drain away. I didn’t want to take the path or least resistance or try to bond with a large piece of fiberglass. Ridiculous as it seemed, I still wanted to build a boat.

I wrote back to my uncle, thanking him for his sage advice. I then added, somewhat meekly: “I have to say that I was looking forward to the challenge of building a boat. I’ve had this romantic idea in my head for decades. It might be a midlife crisis, but I suddenly realized that I should get started or simply let go of the fantasy.

“Based on the many, many boat building forums on the web, I understand that even “simple” boats are time-consuming and relatively expensive to build. I am trying to pick the smallest and simplest boat possible (while keeping in mind the goal of sailing down part of the Chesapeake Bay). I am willing to think creatively about this adventure and I am open to suggestions for other kinds of boats.”

And then I sent him information about the Weekender. I didn’t expect a warm endorsement of the design, but it was all I had.

Within hours, he replied. “There is no doubt in my mind that you can build a boat. Your reasons for doing so make complete sense to me and you have a realistic understanding of what is involved. So I think you should go for it! The sooner the better.”

It got better: “I like the Weekender better than the Micro. It has a much more sensible rig. And $500 for sails versus $1300 is a significant consideration. If you think it is too small, you can go for the Vacationer or the Pocket Cruiser.” I greatly appreciated his gentle endorsement of my eccentricity—and a thumbs up on the boat I liked best. On impulse, I decided to build the Pocket Cruiser, which is a bit chubbier than the Weekender, but provides more cabin space. With that, I was ready to start building.

The next day I called Pete Stevenson and ordered the plans.


Finding the Boat Of My Dreams, Part I

March 25, 2009

Over the years, I spent a great deal of time visiting boat building Web sites and forums. Ignorant of just about everything related to the building process I didn’t get a lot out my wanderings. But I did, over time, gain some general insights about boat building culture and the various philosophies and factions that inevitably exist in this world.

I learned to divide boat builders into two camps. On one side are the purists. They are the folks who use traditional materials and traditional building techniques. They talk confidently about “lapstrake,” “steam bending,” and “carvel” construction. They are craftsmen who make boats that show up on the cover of Wooden Boat magazine. They do amazing things and I greatly admire their skills.

In the other side are a bunch of creative folks who also make some wonderful boats, but are willing to use modern materials and unconventional building techniques. Their conversations are sprinkled with references to “stitch and glue” construction and “instant” boat building. Some make boats inspired by traditional designs and along recognizable lines; others are willing to design outside the box and challenge our preconceived assumptions about boat designs. Many (although not all) of these builders like to use simple and inexpensive materials. Their owners clearly believe it is better to build something than nothing, even if the boat won’t last for a hundred years or lead to an invitation from the yachting club.

For a variety of reasons, I instinctively gravitated to the latter faction. I liked their philosophy of simplicity and economy. But at a more practical level I found their boats to be more novice-friendly. I didn’t need an engineering degree to read their plans, nor special equipment and experience to bend boards into complicated shapes. Instead, I only needed some plywood and my carpenter’s tools to build, if photos were honest representations of their work, some remarkably elegant craft.

But even within these parameters, the choices are nearly overwhelming. A quick search of “ plywood boat building plans,” for example, yields hundreds of possible designs, from sailing canoes to forty-foot cruisers, and from sloops to catamarans. For someone who did not yet know the difference between a catboat and a ketch, it was too much to absorb.

Knowing that I wanted a small cabin helped narrow my options considerably. I learned that some people cruise in open sailboats, erecting canvas shelters for the night, but my fantasy included an enclosed space for sleeping and protection from the weather. I also wanted a boat that could be trailered. This meant that I was looking for something under twenty-five or thirty feet in length; anything larger would be too heavy and unwieldy. The desire to build the boat as quickly and economically as possible reduced the size further. Ideally, I wanted a boat under twenty feet.

These requirements led me to a subcategory of sailing craft called pocket cruisers, which are also called microcruisers or pocket yachts. The general consensus is that a pocket cruiser is a small sailboat with a cabin, generally between fifteen and twenty feet. They can be quite seaworthy and some have sailed around the world, but most live close to shore and are used for short trips.

They sounded perfect, but more work remained. Which of the many pocket cruisers should I build?


Fantasy Meets Reality

March 23, 2009

For most of my life, sailing was simply a fantasy and in its service I compiled a thick album of enticing mental snapshots: There I am at the tiller, squinting into the wind as I skillfully navigate the open seas; that’s me in a paneled cabin, wearing my Shetland wool sweater while reading a book by the light of a kerosene lamp; and here I am anchored off a tropical island, barefoot and shirtless. My, how tan and muscled I look!

But there is a huge gap between these fantasies and my reality. I am neither single, nor footloose. I have a wife and three wonderful children. I love them and they love me. I intuitively knew that a remote tropical island, one possibly inhabited by young women in grass skirts, is no place for a responsible father and devoted husband.

So I tried to imagine us all on a boat, heading to an equally exotic, if unspecified, destination. But do my children actually want to participate in my fantasy? And even if they did, could I build a boat able to safely and comfortably transport a family of five and, probably, our two cats besides?

The whole project was ready to collapse under the weight of its difficulty and absurdity. Herman Melville could dream of “naked houris” and “carved canoes dancing on the flashing blue waters” as his whaling ship approached the Marquesas. But he didn’t have a family and he didn’t build his boat. I needed to face reality.

Let’s start with the obvious: No matter how exciting it is to envision a distant and tropical destination, my desire to “sail away” can not mean going to the ends of the earth. I have neither the skill nor resources needed to chart a course for the South Pacific, or even the Caribbean. Not yet anyway. Nor can I impose this adventure on my family. My oldest son is enthusiastic, but he’s fifteen and not especially reliable; boats are nice, but cute girls come first. He would cheerfully feed me to the sharks if it got him a step closer to his fem du jour. Meanwhile, our twins, both twelve, have little more than what can be best called a “polite interest” in the project. They would miss their friends; they would bicker; they would be bored.

Finally, it’s also obvious I don’t yet have the skills needed to build a boat big enough for the whole crew. And even if I did have the skills, I don’t have the time needed to build a larger boat. I read enough boat build blogs to know that plenty of competent builders spend years building even modest sailing craft. A thirty or forty foot cruiser would probably keep me occupied into and possibly through my retirement.

I started to pull back from my fanciful visions. If Bora Bora is off the itinerary, what can I do? The most clear-eyed and responsible thing for a novice boat builder is to construct a small daysailer, tow it to the local lake, and take the family out for a pleasant spin. At the end of the day, we all go home. I head to the office and the kids go to school.

But, no, that’s much too tame. Sailing away implies a journey, an adventure, and possibly a small hint of danger. So between the boring and the unobtainable, I settled on a plan that seems fully doable for the mildly adventurous family man: I would build a small cruiser, one large enough for all to enjoy on a summer afternoon, with sleeping space for two. The specific goal is to sail the boat down the full length of the Chesapeake Bay—my old backyard–with a willing child, if possible. It’s a trip that can be completed (I’m guessing) in a week or two.

I’m not blazing a trail; plenty of inexperienced sailors make this journey. But it is completely new for me, full of novel experiences, from reading charts and watching the weather, to anchoring for the night and cooking an evening meal over an alcohol stove. And if successfully accomplished, it will help me plan my next step. Maybe I’ll find my calling and start building an even bigger boat; maybe I’ll realize that some dreams are better left unfulfilled. In either case, the journey will be a success even if I walk away from the boat on the outskirts of Norfolk.


Why Build?

March 20, 2009

In our late 20’s and early 30’s my wife and I lived in the Eastern Shore of Maryland, a stone’s throw from the Chester River, in a town steeped in the sailing culture. Ironically, we didn’t spend any time on the water during our seven years near the Chesapeake Bay. Our children were young and we had no desire to take babies and toddlers on a sailboat. But I was able to observe yachters from Annapolis and other marinas on the “western shore.”

There are many skilled and dedicated sailors in the Chesapeake Bay, but there is also an odor of pretension. Sailboats can be—and too often are—another way to establish status; for some, they are little more than nautical BMW’s—teak and brass confections intended to make visible the owner’s financial success.

So I know perfectly well that my plan to build a small and simple boat from materials easily found at the local lumberyard makes me vulnerable to ridicule. I don’t expect to be warmly embraced by yachting class as I waddle through the bays of the eastern seaboard in an overgrown plywood box.

But I’m a contrarian by nature, and I have never felt the need to compete in the status game. Fairly or unfairly, I decided long ago that ostentatious displays of wealth indicate superficiality, misplaced values and an unbecoming degree of insecurity.

Instead of money, I most admire skills. I reserve my respect for those who have nurtured the creative impulse and can invent things beauty and utility. My interests are wide ranging, although I have particular fascination with the more obscure arts–from bookbinding, letterpress printing, and calligraphy to home brewing, winemaking, and quilting. I admire my wife’s skill as a seamstress and I study the work of skilled carpenters. I especially admire those skilled in my own chosen profession of writing, as well as my hobbies of gardening and woodworking.

Being able to build a modest house and sew a simple shirt or dress is a far greater achievement than being able to buy a mansion or the latest Paris fashions. Why? Because even the most crudely made structure or garment is a creative act. It is a demonstration of a real (or emerging) skill, an engaged mind and originality. It is bringing something new into the world, rather than eating up what is already there.

For better or worse, my life follows my values. Most of our furniture is homemade—from kitchen cabinets to the dining room table. Our salad greens come from a greenhouse of my own design; my beer is home brewed; our music is from my guitar and my wife’s piano. My office is in a building built by hand from foundation to roof. I don’t profess great talent in all (or any) of these activities. There are better brewers, better carpenters, more skillful gardeners and vastly superior musicians. But that’s not my concern. Each skill is adequate for our needs and brings pleasure. Indeed, the lack of perfection is a certain source of pride. Small errors and imperfections bring personality to even the most mundane object. Even years later, I read gouges and gaps like stories in a diary, recalling the events of their manufacture.

All this leads me to the conclusion that it is nobler to build a boat than to buy a boat and, as an extension of this philosophy, any homebuilt boat is better than any manufactured boat. It’s not a concession, but an added benefit. It is a display of my values and an integral part of the sailing experience.


In Which I Justify My Obsession

March 19, 2009

I don’t know exactly why boat building became one of my life goals, but I can guess.

The seeds of this dream were certainly planted in childhood when my family owned a cabin on a small lake in upstate New York. We lived there almost full time for several summers and I, in turn, practically lived on the small sailboat we kept tied to the dock. I was young—between eight and eleven—but my parents either had enough faith in my skills or faith in the lake’s small size to let me go out on my own and explore. Wet with spray, sunburned, my shaggy 70’s hair bleached by the sun, I plied the waters of Round Lake for hours at a time.

I was never taught to sail; like all children who master a skill, it came though simple practice until it formed an intuitive understanding. I learned how to find a breeze on a still day (look for ripples), I knew how to get the most speed (tighten the sail and adjust the rudder until–snap!–it felt like the boat was suddenly being pulled by a race car), and I knew how to slide into a the dock with the precision of a train pulling alongside a platform at Penn Station. In an emergency, when the boat threatened to capsize, I knew to relinquish dignity and let go of the sail. Not once did I go overboard.

On land, I was as powerless as any ten-year-old, but on water I was in control of my fate and in control of the elements. I was strong and competent—more competent than the adults around me. My father also liked to sail, but he was a busy professional and rarely went out. When he did, I watched with expert eyes and marveled at his awkwardness. He could drive a car and do important things in an office, but he flopped around the lake like a drunken duck, becalmed one minute, nearly capsizing the next. I didn’t think less of him for it, but it heightened my own sense of competence.

A few years later we moved and stopped visiting the cabin. I became a teenager and rarely thought of the water, but I never fully lost my sense of fellowship with wind and water. On a few occasions I was able to go out into other lakes and bays and found that, with small practice, the old skills returned. My feelings of power and freedom were less intense, but the sense of excitement remained.

It seems easy enough to conclude that I want to recover a small measure of the freedom I experienced as a young sailor. While I am an adult with the power and autonomy of an adult, day-to-day life lacks the purity and empowerment I felt as a small boy on small boat in a small lake. It is not at all surprising that I look back to my childhood for guidance and inspiration.

Still, I am not the first man to contemplate his age and then look to the sea. I wonder, if fact, if there is a single man who has not—at least briefly—considered sailing as an escape from the disappointments and indignities of everyday life. We work so hard to pay the bills, raise the kids, mow the grass, and clean the gutters. No one can fault our steadiness and sense of responsibility as we wake up, dress, and get ready for another day. But in a quiet moment of reflection—or perhaps during a surge or anger and frustration—we see a glimpse of something different: an exotic port, a quiet bay, a boat responding to our expert hands. We feel the pull of adventure and a delicious repudiation of traffic jams, business meetings, office memos, dirty laundry, and conventionality. The bonds are cut and we are free.

There are many ways to escape—on a bike, in a plane, in a Winnebago. But none so fully symbolize independence as a sailboat. A motor home drives down a highway, follows the flow of traffic on predetermined routes and under the eye of state troopers with radar guns. It needs gas and, if it breaks down, the attention of an authorized mechanic. Planes can take us to foreign lands, but we are shoehorned into tiny seats and subjected to countless indignities by the airline industry and the TSA. We pay for every bag, every peanut, and treated like criminals at security check points. No romance here; we are many years past the golden age of flight when we could pack our Samsonite suitcase, grab a passport, and “jet” to foreign lands.

Only sailboats allow us the fantasy of true freedom and self sufficiency. We can stock our cabin with food for weeks at a time–and even pull dinner from the sea. Our power comes from the wind, and that doesn’t cost a dime. Outside of harbors and channels, we set our own course—north, south, east or west and no one can tell us otherwise. The sea isn’t lawless, to be sure, but once we are on the water and, especially, in the open seas, we are as free as we can be in the modern age.

And then there is the romance of literature. From Homer’s Odyssey to semi-autobiographical novels of Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville, I quickly learned to associate sailing with drama and exotic lands. Conrad was my favorite; he made me feel the thrum of a riverboat engine as it crawled through the greasy waters of an African river in the Heart of Darkness. As a teenager, I hacked through the dense prose and murky symbolism so that I could stand at the captain’s side steaming in the Belgian Congo.

Of course there was also danger, and in modern sea tales, these dangers and mishaps often take center stage. The Perfect Storm, published in 1997, is entirely about a doomed fishing trawler. The author wasn’t aboard as the ship goes down (obviously…), but this doesn’t prevent him from speculating in graphic detail what it is like to spend the last few minutes of life drowning in the cold North Sea. If I had read too many books like this at an impressionable age, I probably would have little interest in sailing. Plus, I really hate how the book’s title became a hackneyed cliché.

But the old writers were refreshingly matter of fact about capsizing, sinking, and the other day-to-day catastrophes of a sailor’s life. They were able to make such events exciting, but not too alarming. Indeed, many of the first person accounts are so blasé in their discussion of dangers and disasters, it’s almost possible to miss them the first time around. “I had been nearly twenty years a shipmaster when I quit her deck on the coast of Brazil, where she was wrecked,” wrote Joseph Slocum in the first pages of his classic tale, Sailing Alone Around the World. “My home voyage to New York with my family was made in the canoe Liberdade, without accident.” I read this, started to move on, then paused. Wait, did he just say that he was wrecked in Brazil, and then sailed home—to the United States–in a canoe, with his family?

Indeed he did. But it was the style of the day, it seems, to manfully accept these sorts of inconveniences. In such books it’s pro forma to say that the storm they just survived made them feel “a bit anxious” even as they explain that the very same storm sank a much larger ship “with all hands.” It might be bluster and lies, but it gives armchair sailors hope that they, too, will be able to stare down a storm and do just the right thing and the right moment to avert disaster. Skill and luck will save the day and provide a good yarn for the telling.

Sedated by the steely calm of the writers, I was able to focus, instead, on the writer’s descriptions of transcendent beauty, which are presented with spare but often elegant prose. Taciturn sailors of an earlier age can be remarkably effusive when they talk of their boats. Once Slocum sets sail, he had this to say about the first days at the helm of the Spray:

“Waves dancing joyously across Massachusetts Bay met her coming out of the harbor to dash them into myriads of sparkling gems that hung about her at every surge. The day was perfect, the sunlight clear and strong. Every particle of water thrown into the air became a gem, and the Spray, bounding ahead, snatched necklace after necklace from the sea, and as often threw them away. We have all seen miniature rainbows about a ship’s prow, but the Spray flung out a bow of her own that day, such as I had never seen before.”

It’s words like these, combined with childhood memories, adult dissatisfactions, and restless dreams that shook me out of inaction. It’s a mix of fiction and fantasy, I know, and wholly irresponsible for a man of my age of standing, I’m sure. But at least you now know that there is at least one person in this world who is less rational than you, which must be of some comfort in these troubled times.