Four days. Four hours.

February 27, 2011

Long time readers might notice that I am slightly obsessed with time. I frequently ask: How much can I get don in a day? How much can I do in a weekend? How long until I’m done?

Well, with a few unseasonably warm days last week, I took my obsession to a new level. How much, I wondered, can I get done in an hour?

My enthusiasm for boat building has been growing in recent weeks and I didn’t want to squander the opportunity to make some progress. But good weather came at a busy time. I couldn’t drop my other obligations and head out to the garage. So I applied my guiding motto:  “Doing something is better than doing nothing.”

This philosophy makes me a fairly efficient person. I have an ability to juggle multiple projects and I finish what I start. But it also makes me more than a little neurotic. Willing to parse my day into tiny, minute-by-minute segments, I grown antsy after a few moments of inactivity. In ten minutes, I can…make a phone call, send an email, wash some dishes, or even begin a blog post. I convince myself that I can always squeeze one more item into my to-do list. (And, yes, I do make to do lists.  They guide my days. I even catch myself adding already completed items to my lists just so I can check them off.)

So while the good weather lasted, I vowed to find some room in my day for the boat and see what could be accomplished in an hour. After four days and four hours, here’s my mid-winter progress report:


Adding about three feet to the boat's overall lenght, bowsprint is nothing more than a piece of 2x3.

The gaff is secured to the mast with a simple yoke.

In photographs, the Pocket Cruiser’s bowsprint looks very jaunty. Fully rigged, it gives the boat a classic, boaty appearance. In real life, I discovered, it’s nothing more than a short piece of 2×3 and, in its current unfinished state, I really does look like a construction site discard. It took an hour to cut because, first, I spent a long time looking for my tape measure and, second, I needed to cut the little pointy bit at the end. I trust it will look more impressive when it is sanded, varnished, painted, and attached to the hull with chains. For the moment, it’s not adding much to the overall appearance.

That was the first day.


Continuing with the rigging, I spent my second day and my second hour cutting the boom, which is the part of the rigging that can give you a concussion if it swings about unexpectedly. It too has the pointy bit at the end. It is also rounded and slightly tapered. It will be attached to the mast with a hinge fabricated from pipes, iron bars and a pin. That was an easy hour of work.


Before starting this project, I didn’t know what a “gaff rigged” sail was, but at some point I came to recognize this distinctive, old-fashioned form of rigging. Simply put, the gaff  is a pole that holds the top of the sail out and away from the mast.

Cutting the gaff was a bit more interesting and slightly more complicated than the previous day’s work, primarily because I needed to cut and assemble a yoke at one end where the gaff slides over top of the mast. The yoke is held in place by a short piece of rope, which holds a series of plastic rings cut from pvc pipe. These pipe pieces act as rollers so that the gaff can slide up and down the mast as needed. I was able to cut the gaff and wooden yokes on the third day. The pieces were assembled on the fourth day. It was a pleasantly mechanical thing to build.

So that’s it: Four hours of work over four days yielded most of the pieces needed to support my sail. The weather turned colder after that and I once again returned to the woodstove and my books, but I feel that I regained some momentum and am ready for the next warm day. All I need is an hour.

And my tape measure, wherever it is.

Sailing along with Captain Slocum

February 12, 2011

Spring can wait.

The mid Atlantic is still locked in winter. A parade of snow and ice storms keep me inside and close to our wood stove. What’s a boat builder to do?

Open a book, of course. And my top pick for vicarious nautical adventuring is Geoffrey Wolff’s biography of Joshua Slocum, The Hard Way Round (Knoff, 2010). After reading the New York Times’ positive review a few months ago, I put his book on my Christmas wish list and was delighted when the handsome hardback appeared under our tree.

Like many (most?) part-time sailors, I had read Sailing Alone Around the World, Slocum’s account of his 1895 solo trip around the world in his 37-foot sailboat, Spray. If you have not read this book, stop reading this post and immediately buy, borrow, or download (for free from Project Gutenberg) a copy of this classic narrative. Slocum’s skill as a sailor was matched by his skill as a writer and his book ranks as not only one of the best sea yarns ever published, but as one of the best non-fiction books of the modern era. He recounts with lyrical understatement the sublime beauty of tropical sunsets and fair winds, as well as the perils of twenty-foot waves, Arabian pirates, and thieving natives.

But if you already know the outlines of Slocum’s adventure, I then recommend Wolff’s biography. Here we find the back story to Slocum’s remarkable journey, discover something of his character and, especially, come to appreciate the various professional and personal tragedies that drove Slocum to the Spray, his vagabond life, and, ultimately, his mysterious disappearance at sea.

Slocum said little of his own motivations for undertaking his adventure. In a few pithy paragraphs he sketches his early life by talking about his determination to become a sailor and how he entered his profession “over the bows.” He also made it clear that he rose to the rank of master and enjoyed some success in his posts. He also hinted at a life of derring-do; when a ship under his command sank in Brazil he mentions, in the most off-hand way possible, that he chose to sail home with his family in a homemade “canoe.”

A canoe? From Brazil? With his family? Surely there’s more to the story, I said to myself when I first encountered this passage. And there is.

Slocum did begin is life at sea as a boy, probably to escape an unhappy life at his Nova Scotia home, Wolff recounts. And his ambition and talents allowed him to distinguish himself from the general the mass of surly, disputatious and drunken sailors. At first, his life was charmed. He met Virginia, his wife-to-be, in Australia. They fell in love, married and immediately set sail together, feeling complete in each other’s company. Children were born. He owned and commanded several ships, including a magnificent clipper; their staterooms were filled with books, pianos and fine furniture.

In these years, Slocum was master of the sea and master of his fate. He was capable of overcoming every obstacle. Even genuine tragedies–especially the death of three children—seemed not to affect his confident outlook on life. (For a devastating account of one child’s death, we must rely on a heartfelt letter written by Virginia). And so his life proceeded on its happy course for roughly a decade.

But then his luck changed. Over a short span of years, his wife, who was always in frail health, dies in South America. He is taken to court for mistreatment of a mutinous sailor, and his ship sinks off the Brazilian coast (commencing a multi-year battle with the Brazilian government for compensation), among other setbacks. Wolff places the reader’s sympathies with Slocum where possible, but we begin to see worrisome fault lines in his character. His battle with the Brazilian and American bureaucrats becomes obsessive; the charges of mistreatment are fended off, but reveal an explosive temper; he remarries, but emotional bonds are weak.

In this context, his return home from Brazil in a “canoe” (it actually was a 35-foot sailboat built from salvaged wood), might have been the work of an obstinate and increasingly angry man who wanted to thumb his nose at a world he could no longer control. Instead of booking passage aboard a steamer (the American consul was willing to pay for their return trip), he built a sailing canoe with his oldest son and made the journey himself. They returned to America safely and Slocum declared it a great success, but his long suffering second wife vowed to never set sail again.

Once home, he faced even larger storms. The age of sail had ended; the great clippers were left to rot and their skilled masters were forced to retire or adapt. Slocum found himself nearly destitute, his reputation sullied, and his profession evaporating. At a low point, he found employment as a shipyard carpenter while his wife worked as a gown fitter.

For those of us who first encountered Slocum through his books, it is easy to see his solo voyage aboard Spray as his crowning achievement, the culmination of his sailing career. But when placed in the full context of his life and work, his voyage could be viewed as a means of escape or a desperate final act of a man who found himself irrelevant. Consider: There was nothing to keep him home; no worthy employment presented itself. He was restless. In such a state of mind, it was easy enough to point a small boat to the open ocean. As all compulsive travelers know, forward movement can mask a life that is otherwise adrift.

Of course he had plans. Slocum always had plans. He had literary ambitions and hoped to serialize an account of his adventure. As it turned out, interest in his writing was limited, but he did enjoy success as a public speaker and refilled his pocketbook at each port of call by presenting illustrated talks about his journey. A born salesman, he would also charge for tours of his boat and, in Australia, even earned money exhibiting a shark. He was a global celebrity and crowds gathered in anticipation of his arrival. He was far from the stateroom of a clipper ship, but it certainly beat working in a boatyard.

But at journey’s end, he found himself back home, not much better off than he was before he left. While other nations cheered Slocum, Americans seemed indifferent. Some doubted his tale; others simply didn’t care. He continued to give illustrated talks, which were well received. He even earned enough from exhibiting his boat at the Buffalo World’s Fair to buy a small farm. But true wealth and happiness seemed to elude him. He proclaimed his intention to settle down and grow crops, but barely had enough interest in the idea to lift a hoe. He bickered with his relatives and ignored his children.

Inevitably, he returned to his boat and, Wolff reports, more or less lived aboard Spray for the rest of his life. He sailed south in winter, drifted north in summer, visited old friends and welcomed visitors, but even sympathetic commentators noted his dissipated state. He talked like a man of breeding and sophistication, but looked like a ragged tramp—dirty, unshaven, his shirt and pants indifferently buttoned. He broke a man’s jaw in Nassau and was briefly jailed after a twelve-year-old girl visited his boat in New Jersey but went home deeply shaken. Not rape, all agreed, but something scary happened. Slocum, contrite, offered no defense.

Like the picture of Dorian Gray, Spray seemed to mirror Slocum’s state of mind; it was filthy, visitors reported, and poorly maintained. Some wondered how it even stayed afloat. His disappearance in 1908 while enroute to Venezuela was not a dramatic final scene, but something closer to a slow fade to black.

And yet: What a life Slocum lived, and what amazing things he accomplished! Wolff, a prolific writer, tackles the man’s life and work with easy confidence, lingering over the intriguing details, but never getting bogged down in nautical trivia or the dull preoccupations of Slocum devotees (What did the Spray really look like? Did the boat really steer itself? And how did he die?). At just over 200 pages, The Hard Way Round moves at a brisk pace and is very much written for those of us who love Slocum’s book, and want to know just a little bit more. We learn to share Wolff’s deep respect for he man’s talents, both nautical and literary.

Unintentionally, it is also something of a cautionary tale. It is a reminder that journeys are undertaken for many reasons, not all of them noble. And journeys, once completed, do not solve the problems and worries we tried to leave behind. As Wolff notes, a circumnavigation is all about returning to the place we began. All this is obvious enough, but Slocum’s life suggests that it’s a truth we must all learn anew. Glory, grieving, ennui and madness can look much the same when we are far from land, in a little boat, all alone.