Failure and Humiliation

August 24, 2012

The green line was my planned route. The red line is what I actually did. Read on to hear my tale of woe.

My new home of Ithaca is freshwater sailor’s paradise. Sitting on the southern tip of Lake Cayuga, there are at least three marinas within city limits. But finding my own path to the water was surprisingly difficult.

Here’s the problem: All of Ithaca’s marinas are located along a narrow, mile-long inlet—a partially manmade channel, as far as I can tell–that extends from the southern end of the lake and into the western edge of the city. It’s a bustling waterway; sailboats line docks, rented canoes and kayaks wander about with aimless enthusiasm, and a large tour boat embarks on regularly scheduled trips into the lake.  But when I started calling marinas, looking for a place to park my trailer and launch my boat, I was turned away. The inlet, I was told, was too narrow to sail and the lake was too far away to paddle. Because I didn’t have a motor, I would have to take my boat elsewhere.

I continued to make calls and eventually reached the very friendly owner of one the town’s scruffier boatyards. He listened to my dilemma and suggested that I try launching from a state-owned marina near the mouth of the lake. The park’s boat ramps were still in the inlet, he explained, but closer to open water; maybe I could sail out from there.  As for storing the boat, he had space in one of his open sided sheds and would give me a late season discount. I gratefully accepted his offer, checked this problem off my moving to do list, and continued packing up our Pennsylvania home.

We moved like Okies. My wife drove our good car with two vomiting cats, my oldest son drove the unreliable Subaru station wagon, and I followed in the U-Haul—with the sailboat hitched behind. We moved slowly and stopped often, but arrived safely.

By our second day in Ithaca I had the boat tucked away at the boatyard and for the next two or three weeks I was fully occupied by the excitement of exploring our new town. Even outings for the most prosaic reasons—groceries, gas, shower curtains—were infused with a sense of adventure. With road map in hand, we would find our way to the supermarket, the hardware store, the downtown shopping district, exclaiming like tourists in a foreign land as we explored each.

But once our furniture was arranged and our suitcases unpacked, I began to think about the boat. I knew that I should sail. Summer was nearly over and the long New York winter would soon begin; it would be wrong to let the season pass. Yet I hesitated. Publicly, I blamed my delay on work or the weather. Privately, I acknowledged that I was intimidated by my new homeport.

Sailing on Pennsylvania’s Lake Nockamixon was like playing in the little leagues; we were all amateurs and the lake was small. But this was the big time. Lake Cayuga felt massive and many of the boats docked around town represented the “A” list of America’s nautical heritage. In Pennsylvania, I received accolades simply because I was the only wooden boat on the water, but here I competed with ocean going keelboats, restored Chris-Craft cabin cruisers, elegant cat boats, and a half dozen other vessels ready for the cover of Wood Boat magazine. I suddenly felt like a country kid coming into town with a torn suitcase and straw in my hair—hot stuff back home, but an object of derision in the big city. All of my insecurities emerged and I worried about launching my boat in front of people with years of real sailing experience.

But I couldn’t delay forever so I picked a sunny day with light winds. With my teenage twins, I picked up the boat, towed it a mile to the state marine park and surveyed the scene. Because it was also a weekday, I had hoped for an empty boat ramp and no witnesses. But to my dismay, the waterfront was a hive of activity. Several ramps were occupied with arriving or embarking powerboats as onlookers sat on the grass and park benches. My heart sank as I realized that my launching would be a public event.

Small problems cropped up right away. Not until I started raising the mast—a task I complete while the boat is still on the trailer—did I realize that a turnbuckle was missing. It probably unwound itself and fell off during the drive to New York, but it had to be replaced before I could secure the mast and get underway. While the kids waited by the boat, I drove to a nearby hardware store (making a few wrong turns down unfamiliar streets) and bought a new one. Back at the boat, it took at least half an hour to put it all together.

By now it was a hot, cloudless day. Jumping on and off the boat from the steaming parking lot exhausted me and by the time the mast was finally raised, I was covered in sweat. Already tired, I backed the trailer—somewhat inelegantly—down the ramp and, with help from my kids, quickly pushed the boat into the water. After parking the trailer, I jumped aboard and announced that we were ready to go.

That’s when the second problem became obvious. In my rush to get going, I forgot to install the rudder, which I had removed from the transom before the move. While the boat started drifting away from the dock, I threw myself into the cabin, pulled out the rudder and pounded it into place while leaning so far out of the boat I nearly tumbled into the water. Even under ideal conditions, I often struggle to attach the rudder and normally use a hammer to fit the pins into the homemade hinges. Without tools, I accomplished the task with a bare fist and adrenaline. I collapsed into the boat with a sore hand and a shaking arm.

Still, there was no time to rest; we were in open water and I needed to raise the sail. So with my son at the tiller, I stepped forward and started hauling up the halyard and gaff lines as quickly as possible. And here, inevitably, was where the third problem emerged. Working too quickly, I let lines get tangled around pulleys at the top of the mast. The sail went up, but not quite all the way; it looked sloppy and the one real features of my boat—cool gaff rigging—was marred by the mistake. But I didn’t have time to drop the sail and straighten out the lines because the final and, ultimately, most serious problem was now becoming apparent: The wind had died and we were adrift.

Before setting off, my plan—such as it was—assumed that I could sail up the channel and into the lake proper, nearly a quarter mile away. At the time, I was not worried about the amount of wind, only it’s direction. Because I needed to head north, straight into the prevailing wind, I would have to complete a series of very short tacks, crisscrossing the inlet while heading upwind, like this:

 I had never done this before, but I felt it was possible. I had read stories about sailboats much larger than mine “short tacking” their way up rivers and narrow waterways. But without wind, tacking–or any other form of controlled movement–now existed in the realm of idle speculation.

Waiting for the wind to pick up was not a solution either. Once we were on the water, I ruefully acknowledged that the inlet was probably too narrow for tacking in my boat and that I would be a hazard to navigation if I tried. With so many powerboats heading in both directions, any attempt to zig zag up the inlet while under sail would be like driving a very slow car back and forth across four lanes of Interstate traffic. As a plan, it was both impractical and dangerous.

By now, we had more or less drifted to the opposite bank. With my kids at the tiller, I grabbed a paddle with the immediate goal of avoiding the shore and the possible long term goal of paddling all the way to the lake. I don’t know why I thought this was possible; I was hot, thirsty, drenched in sweat, and a little bit sunburned. Clearly, I didn’t have the energy required to accomplish such an Olympian task. But I think I was motivated by a strong desire to get away from the boat ramp which, after all this time and effort, was still just a stone’s throw away. I imagined that a dozen eyes were watching our hapless struggle.

Digging into the water with my little paddle, the boat moved as if through glue. Time slowed and passing boats became an indistinguishable blur of movement. And this was when I hit the low point of my day—and of my sailing career to date. Amid my struggles, the captain of a passing motor boat hailed me from a short distance away and, pointing to my mast, said something that my brain could not properly process, but was definitely not a complement. In a tone of reproach, it sounded like “Your luff is loose,” or maybe, “Your halyard is hashed,” but in either case I knew what he was driving at and the note of judgment was clear enough.  Because I was beyond rational thought and coherent communication, I simply paused in my paddling and offered him a weary shrug in reply. Inexplicably, he shrugged back and roared off.

I took this as a sign from God that it was time to give up. Having achieved both failure and humiliation—the twin horsemen of my nautical nightmares—I told my kids that it we should go home. Slowing, publicly, I paddled us back to the launch we had left only a short time before. Our total journey on our very first outing was about 200 nautical feet—and we never even reached Lake Cayuga.

I pulled the boat out of the water and solemnly drove it back its storage space in the nearby boatyard. I closed the cabin hatch, locked the trailer to a post, and drove away. And there it stayed until the following spring.

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A New Home Port

August 20, 2012

A nineteenth century view of Lake Cayuga. Remarkably, it still looks like this in some places.

I started building my boat because, to be honest, I was unhappy. And one cause of my unhappiness was our home. Ten years ago we bought a 200-year-old stone house in a semi-rural corner of eastern Pennsylvania, charmed by the exposed beams, pine floors and deep window wells. Smitten by the house, we were tone deaf to the culture of the surrounding community. While I lived by the rules of suburban conventionality (be quiet, be tidy, be polite), my neighbors surprised me by, for example, firing guns from their back porches after a night of heavy drinking and idling Harley motorcycles in their front yards.

Most were friendly, but none could figure us out. I worked at home and, as one neighbor summarized, “did something with computers.” We could chat about the weather, but wisely avoided religion, politics and professional sports (about which I know absolutely nothing). I was starved for intellectual companionship, but found none. To buck up my spirits, I made frequent trips to distant cities, just to sit in cafes, browse bookstores, and see people who shared a similar set of life experiences.

Because I disliked our community, I grew resentful of our house. In previous homes, I was always mister fix-it, eager to paint, patch, build and garden. But our ancient, crumbling home defeated me. I didn’t have the energy or enthusiasm needed to keep up with the weeds, the peeling paint, the rotting windowsills, or the leaky roof and I resented every dollar spent on antique septic systems, faulty electrical wiring, and crumbing stucco.  Yet leaving didn’t feel like an option. Because the real estate market was dead in our blue collar community, we felt trapped.

Sailing was, in this way, more than a psychological escape. It was, to some extent, the dream of physical escape. As I worked in my garage, I felt like an inmate at Alcatraz, secretly building my raft to freedom. These dreams of serenely gliding to Bora Bora grew more vivid every time the local Harley bike club roared by– twenty, thirty, forty bikes at a time—violating every municipal noise ordinance devised in the Western world.  And I redoubled my efforts when reminded that the “grand dragon” of the local KKK lived just down the road.

And then, one day, I finished building my boat. I loaded it on a trailer, drove it to a lake, sailed around, and then…came home. A few hours had passed—I was tan and happy—but nothing fundamental had changed. A small boat on an inland lake was, quite obviously, not going to take me away from my house. And a few trips on the Chesapeake wouldn’t magically heal a leaky roof, or produce a neighbor eager to chat about art, history, or philosophy.

The boat was a kind of therapy when I needed hope and a distraction. But it was not a real solution to my problems. Obviously, the only real way to get away was to leave in a more conventional manner: Put up a for sale sign, pack boxes, rent a U-Haul truck and drive off. And two months after I finished the boat, that’s what we did. The market was still bad, but we no longer cared. Life is short and we were miserable.

I sometimes wonder what role, if any, my boat building project really had on the timing of our move. Did the effort and emotional energy devoted to building the boat delay the day of reckoning and keep us tied to Pennsylvania longer than necessary? Possibly. But I think the opposite is true. I believe that building a boat helped me imagine a richer life and articulate my values and my dreams. It could not be the means of my physical escape, but it nurtured the emotional fortitude needed to make a change that was complex and financially unwise.

On the rebound, we decided to find a town that was, to the greatest extent possible, the exact opposite of everything we experienced in rural Pennsylvania. After many exploratory trips—Asheville, North Carolina; Bisbee, Arizona; Shepherdstown, West Virginia; Portland, Oregon—we settled on Ithaca, New York, which is home to Cornell University and a well-known outpost of progressive thought. How much cooler is Ithaca? Well, it has four bookstores within four square blocks and actually supports a multiplex art movie house.  I can go to a different café every day of the week– and agonize over which one makes the better cappuccino.

And, oh, yes, it happens to sit on the shore of Lake Cayuga, the largest of New York’s famed Finger Lakes. Only a few miles wide, but 38 miles long, it is filled with dozens of sailboats, both large and small, on breezy summer days. Officially, the lake was not a factor in our decision-making, but, unofficially, I was consulting charts even before we found a house to rent.

And that’s when I discovered that the lake is also connected to the famed Erie Canal, which meant—get this!–that I could embark from my home and sail, unimpeded, all the way to the Great Lakes or the Atlantic and destinations beyond. My mind reeled at the possibilities:  Montreal, New Orleans, and Bimini were all there for the taking, requiring only a right turn or left turn once I reached the top of my lake. My dream of sailing away was rekindled and burned bright.

The move was hard and stressful. Our Pennsylvania house didn’t sell and when it finally did, nine months after we left, it went for a firesale price. But we never regretted the decision to leave, or our choice of destinations. For the first six months, I walked around town with a goofy “pinch-me” smile and drank up the artsy-bookish culture like a man who had nearly died of thirst. I marveled that people related to my work as writer and we found ourselves in the disorienting position of not being the most liberal people in the county. My kids liked their new school and my wife started making connections that would lead to rewarding employment.

All was right with the world—except for one thing: I had not yet sailed my boat. And accomplishing this goal turned out to be an unexpectedly difficult and, initially, humiliating task.


Sailing and the Meaning of Life

August 17, 2012

ImageHi, I’m back. And I have a lot of catching up to do. I’ll start off with some philosophy:

Launching my boat marked was a major accomplishment and proved—to myself and others—that I had the competence and sheer stubborn determination to see a project through.

However, building was only the first step.  As I have said time and again, the dream of building a sailboat was, at its heart, driven by the fantasy of escape.  The animating force was a desire to glide away–silently, competently, self-sufficiently–from my problems and find a life of happiness and contentment. It was a very powerful goal and it kept me motivated for three long years while I cut wood, glued boards, sanded epoxy, and puzzled over an endless procession of technical problems.

Of course, I would come back home after completing my adventure; I never wanted to run away from my family. But a cathartic dream of escape fueled all of my labors.

However, once the boat was completed and, especially, once it was sailed, I was forced to examine this fantasy and, over the past year, I came to the inevitable conclusion that my boat is just too small. I don’t mean that it’s physically too small; I’m not talking about its ability to withstand a journey or survive wind and waves.  Instead, I am talking about the ability of the boat to hold all my dreams and to solve all of my problems. Against this expectation, my boat—any boat—is not up to the task. Sailing away, while exciting to think about, could not offer the solutions to problems that triggered the whole enterprise.

But—and here’s a very important point—I decided that this is ok. As I roamed around Pennsylvania’s Lake Nockamixon, searching for wind, trimming the sails, cracking jokes with my teenage kids, anchoring, and plotting a course for home at the end of the day—I decided that the happiness I felt for those few hours was enough. More than enough, really. Although tame and brief, these excursions offered me the kind of contentment that I thought would only come through a grand and dramatic gesture.

In fact, I began to articulate a philosophy of life around the joy I felt during these hours.  Happiness is not a goal to be won, I mused, but an activity to be experienced. It is not found in a distant and, probably, nonexistent port, but in all that I have done so far: dreaming, planning, building and—now—sailing on nearby lakes. These are the experiences to that make hours pass like minutes and help me feel better about the world in general.

Of course, I have not solved all my problems. I’m still Paul, with all of my demons. But I’m no longer looking for a grand escape from my life.  A meaningful, centered life can simply be a procession of meaningful experiences. It’s true that many of these experiences are fleeting, but they are all, collectively, the heart and soul of our equally fleeting lives. And while I make no claims to a universal truth, I agree with Camus, who writes in the closing lines of The Myth of Sisyphus that “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.”

This is all good news in my opinion. Although I have yet to sail away from my homeport, I have already achieved my goals. I “sailed away” every time I spent a day in the garage building my boat and I continue to sail away every time I steal a few hours from my day for a spin around the lake.  In many ways, I overestimated the importance of reaching the summit, but underestimated the satisfaction of pushing my rock.

But what about my grand plan to sail to  distant places? It’s alive and well, but for different reasons.   I now view it as the next challenge, not as a dramatic conclusion to this little boat building drama. Increasingly, I see sailing away  as the ongoing procession of adventures that will occur as build my skills as a sailor and explore new places. It is not one journey, but many.

Launching and learning to sail around a midsized lake turned out to be the first goal. Building confidence at the tiller turned out to be the first challenge. But now I am ready to move on and, as it turns out, new opportunities are emerging. That’s what I’ll talk about in my next entry.


Launching: The Full Report

June 8, 2011

I’m trying to find the right way to tell the story of our launching. I feel it calls for solemn toasts and inspiring words, something on the order of Neil Armstrong’s “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” After all, this was the culmination of two years of hard work and about twenty-five years of dreaming. It’s not enough to say, “Well, it was fun.”

Yet, with a few days’ reflection, what I most remember was the simple thrill of seeing the boat float and actually move forward under sail. Sitting at the tiller, feeling the tug of the water on the rudder, hearing the rustle of sails above, watching the bow point to a distant shore, and knowing that every bit was built by my hands, was deeply, almost indescribably satisfying.  The four hours passed so quickly, we all (my crew and I) swore it felt like an hour at most. It was, we all agreed, very, very fun.

It’s amazing how quickly old worries and preoccupations disappeared. Once in the water, I no longer worried about leaking or sinking. And I completely forgot to worry about my choice of glues or the durability of my hardware store paint. When the boat slid off the trailer and bobbed in the water, these fears evaporated. Instead, I found myself simply reveling in the experience of being on my boat, working the lines and bringing the craft to life.

“Bringing the craft to life:” Yes, that statement helps capture the experience of sailing my boat. While it’s possible to admire the boat’s lines and color scheme when it is sitting in a garage, it feels essentially lifeless and graceless when sitting under florescent lights and covered in a thin film of dust. But on the water and under sail, the boat gleamed and the sails breathed. The joy was seeing it come alive.

Our first hurdle was to fix tangled halyard lines. My son is helping me consult the instructions.

Still working on the lines. There's nearly 300 feet of rope on this boat!

Finally fixed. it took us over half an hour to get the boat ready for launching. Unfortunately, we don't have any still photos of the launching or sailing. Check out the Youtube video (the link is in my previous "Launched!" post).

We chose a day with a careful eye on the weather. A pleasant day was promised—sunny and in the 70s. Wind was my only concern; it was blowing around 15 miles and hour and gusting to over 20, according to radio. That’s not tornado weather by any means and, for most sailors, it represents nearly ideal conditions. But for my launch, I wished for something more benign. I didn’t want to tax my boat or my crew on our inaugural sail. But I wasn’t going to wait for a less windy day; even worse would be a day without any wind. Launching on a still lake would be anticlimactic, to say the least.

We chose to launch at Lake Nockamixon, a rather large body of water in eastern Pennsylvania. It allows motorboats, but seems most popular with sailors. Nearly all of the boats in its 600-berth state park marina are either sailboats or innocuous pontoon boats. In preparation, I had carefully plotted the route to the marina (I was almost as worried about trailering the boat as I was about launching it) and even zoomed in on the boat launch with Google Earth so I could mentally rehearse strategies for backing the trailer into the water. I didn’t want to look like a hapless first timer, jackknifing my trailer and dumping the boat sideways.

My old Subaru cooperated by not breaking down or balking at the weight and we arrived early afternoon. I proudly drove past the sign “trailers only beyond this point” and slid into the parking area, where several other sailboats were being prepared for launching. Their owners seemed skilled and purposeful.

Affecting what I hoped was an equally confident manner, I directed my wife and two teenage boys and began to raise the mast and attach the stays. Decorum was lost, however, when we realized that our halyard lines were hopelessly tangled. The sail came back down and we spent several minutes trying to remember if the line went through the double pulley and then through the single pulley—or the reverse. I actually brought along my boat building instructions and (to my quiet shame) surreptitiously consulted the rigging chart to set it right. My wife threatened to say loudly, “Do you need the instructions, honey?” Trying to be nonchalant, we untangled the mess.

Now it was show time. There were four areas to launch boats; three were occupied. The only available spot was downwind and near a jetty. I sensed trouble, but plowed ahead. I drove the car down to the launch and backed up to the water. The night before I read about backing a trailer in a great little book called The Complete Sailor. The trick, my book said, is to place my hand on the bottom of the wheel and move it in the direction that I wanted the trailer to go. This helps novices avoid the tendency to point the car in the wrong direction. With this helpful guide, I avoided excessive embarrassment. Pretty soon, the trailer was going underwater and the stern was getting wet.

With much help and advice from my family, the boat was unhitched and pushed into the water. I was just about to shout for joy when, suddenly, I saw the starboard stay go slack. A moment of confusion was immediately followed by intimations of disaster until my oldest son realized that the culprit was a “quick link” holding one of the bowsprit chains to a turnbuckle. The strain of moving the boat had pulled the relatively weak coupling apart. The bowsprit loosened, releasing tension in the stays.

The problem was small, but the implications were serious. If I couldn’t reattach the chain to the hull, I couldn’t sail. Fortunately, I had the foresight (or lack of confidence in my building skills) to bring my toolbox. In fact, before leaving home I told my wife that I had packed enough tools to build a house. So with the help of a Vice-Grip, hammer, and countersink (don’t make me explain this combination of tools) I was eventually able to squeeze my chain directly into a turnbuckle. I was relieved, but humbled. The boat was floating, but I had to overcome a mechanical problem even before I had set foot on deck.

Next came the hard part—getting aboard, raising the sail and getting away from the dock. Here’s what happened: I decided to raise the jib but not the mainsail before getting underway. We all got aboard and started drifting away from the dock. I went forward to raise the main sail, but before I made much progress, we were close to the rocky jetty. I shifted strategies and grabbed a paddle, but it was too little, too late. At the last minute I jumped overboard and, standing in water up to my waist, pushed the boat away from the shore. Did I mention that it was a pleasant day and the jetty was crowded with sightseers? “Well, he needs to get his boat away from the rocks,” I heard one older lady explain to a wide-eyed grandchild.

Safely away from land, I was finally able to raise the mast. Immediately, the wind grabbed hold and we shot out to the middle of the lake. My oldest son was at the tiller, grinning like the Cheshire Cat; this, he felt, was what sailing was all about. My wife was not so sure. She had fantasies of dangling her arm in the water while reading a book, not holding on for dear life.

In truth, I was a bit nervous, too. There was so much that I didn’t know about this boat. How far can it heal? How fast can it go? It’s not a large boat, but it’s much larger than a Sunfish. And I simply didn’t know what to expect from a flat bottomed craft. We waffled upwind as I fought competing urges to race ahead and ease off for safety.

Still, this was, perhaps, the best part of the afternoon. We were making good progress and I always felt more comfortable going upwind. We tacked a couple of times and nobody received a concussion. How much time passed? My son guessed fifteen minutes; my watch said an hour. I looked back and realized that the marina was a surprisingly far away. We decided to turn down wind and head back.

As I have written in before, I grew up sailing a small boat on a small lake. As a child, I didn’t have any formal training as a sailor. I felt competent, but I had no awareness of sailing terms or concepts. Sometimes I needed to let out the sail; sometimes I found it better to keep it close to my side. I understood that the boom would swing from one side to the other when I turned. But I had no concept of “close hauled” or “broad reach” sailing. I know that it was sometimes hard to make reliable turns, but I didn’t know why.

In hindsight, I realize that, as a boy, I tended to take the easy route and muddle through the hard parts of sailing. This meant that I looked for opportunities to sail across the wind (reaching) or slightly upwind (close hauled, I think it’s called), which gave me the most sense of control and the easiest tacks. But I struggled with downwind sailing. Only later did I learn from my books that downwind sailing really is harder. It’s harder to judge winds, make turns, and avoid jibing—a sudden and unintended swing of the boom from one side of the boat to the other.

So as we turned and headed downwind toward the marina, my Achilles heal was once again revealed. Gusts, shifting winds, and a disoriented captain meant that we bobbed and weaved about, catching wind one moment, stalling the next, and making quick turns to avoid jibes when they threatened. “Where’s the wind?” I kept asking my family. Three hands would point in three slightly different directions.

Inelegantly, we made our way back down the lake, but just as I felt that we were finding our sea legs, we faced our next major challenge. Sitting at the tiller, I saw the starboard stay fly away from the hull and hang limp in the air. I looked at the mast saw it bending about 10 degrees to the left, straining against the two hinges holding it to the tabernacle. Without the support provided by the vital length of wire, the mast would almost certainly break.

I handed the tiller to my son and clamored forward to lower the sail. My first thought was to reduce tension on the mast and, if necessary, sail home with the jib alone. But once I had the sail down and could inspect the stay I realized that nothing was broken; the turnbuckle simply unscrewed itself (how could that happen? I kept thinking). But this gave me hope. If we could straighten the sail, I might be able to screw the turnbucke back in place.

Our plan was simple. I told my son to turn the boat to further reduce tension on the starboard side and to have my other son push the mast with all his might. I grabbed the stay and turnbuckle, willing them to come together. “Almost there!” I yelled. “Try again!” After a minute of frantic and frustrated effort, I gained just enough slack to bring the two parts back together. We were saved.

Exhausted and almost giddy, I decided that we should take a break. We kept the mainsail down while I crawled into the cabin (for the first time while under sail) to lie down and eat one of my wife’s homemade empanadas. I felt a great rush of happiness and affection for our boat, despite the glitches. “I love my boat!” I enthused, my mouth full of food. By the time I finished my dinner and came out of the cabin, the winds had died and we were drifting toward shore. More frantic work ensued as we raised the sail and pointed the boat back out toward open water.

Emboldened by our ability to overcome nearly every possible catastrophe, we sailed past the marina before deciding to head back upwind and toward home. For me, this was my opportunity redeem myself. After a disastrous departure, I was determined to return with skill and grace.

Over the course of the afternoon, I watched sailboats depart and return. Nearly all did so under power. But we didn’t have an outboard. We had to sail in–and I had one chance to get it right. We sailed perpendicular to the marina and I started to turn in, but I realized that we weren’t lined up correctly. We would almost certainly get pushed too far downwind. I turned away and headed back upwind. My family groaned. They wanted the boat to work like a car. But, I explained, boats don’t work that way. You need to work with the wind. Sometimes you have to go away from the place you want to go. My wife had another idea. “I want you to get a motor.”

A couple of days later, fellow boat builder David Heineman dropped by with this giant hand decorated celebratory cookie. Boat builders are very nice people.

So feeling the pressure on all fronts, I bided my time before turning back toward the launch. “We’ll head for the one the middle,” I said, pointing my boat at the center dock. We were moving fast, but I could tell that we were slipping downwind—leeway, I believe it’s called. I adjusted the tiller and pointed the boat about 15 degrees upwind. “Look!” I said to my family. “Can you see how we need to go sideways in order to sail straight toward the dock?” Yes, they could all see it. Pretty cool.

Closer…closer. Please, god, don’t blow it. And at the last possible second, I straightened the tiller and we slid with perfect precision alongside the dock. I jumped out and looked around. Nobody was watching.


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:

Bowsprint

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.

Boom

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.

Gaff

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.


Horsepower or Human Power?

June 7, 2010

I checked a large item off my “to do” list today by finishing my boat’s transom and motor mount. Over the past several weeks I incrementally built up the transom with multiple layers of pine boards and plywood—four layers in all—capable of supporting an outboard motor in a U-shaped cutout. A removable insert was also constructed, which fits like a glove and is very satisfying to slide in and take out.

The completed transom, showing the cutout with the insert removed.

The transom, as seen from the inside. The insert is now in place. If I don't use an outboard, the boat will look like this most of the time.

A sideview of the insert, showing all of the various layers used to build up the transom.

I completed this step feeling conflicted. The truth is, I don’t like outboards. In my very limited experience, outboards are large machines that fill space and, as a general rule, refuse to start. On the rare occasion when they do cooperate, the result is a great deal of noise and nasty smells.

But you have to have an outboard! people say. How will you get out of harbors? What happens when the wind dies? And they might be right. I don’t have enough experience to argue otherwise. My sailing experience is limited to Sunfish. But then again…Lots of sailboats, large and small, managed to get out of harbors and reach their destinations for millennia without power, so why do we think they are absolutely essential? Are they necessary, or simply convenient?

Again, I don’t yet know the answer, but I have noticed a tendency in modern culture to forget what we can do without gasoline. To often, we accept the belief that technology that is available is technology that must be used.

Twenty-five years ago a large branch broke off a tree in our front yard. We were newlyweds in a small California bungalow and my toolbox was small. As city dwellers, we had no need for a chainsaw. So I started cutting up the limb with my handsaw. A man walking down the street stopped to watch me work, then said, not in a friendly way, “Man, you are using entirely the wrong tool for the job!” and walked on.

But why was it the wrong tool? I mused. It’s not morally wrong to use a handsaw. I wasn’t breaking any municipal laws. It was just a slower way of cutting wood. And why is that wrong? A more compelling case could be made that a noisy and potentially lethal chainsaw is the less responsible tool. I, on the other hand, was enjoying a sunny day and getting real exercise.

A year or two later, I was cutting the grass. Our yard was small so it made sense, to me, to use an old-fashioned reel mower. It was the neighborhood novelty; everyone else had the most muscular self-propelled mowers their postage stamp-sized lots could justify. One day a small boy stopped, pointed at the mower, and asked, “Where’s the motor?” “I’m the motor!” I replied with a grin, hoping the youngster would say something like, “Gee, that’s really cool, mister! Can I try it out? ” But he stared at me blankly and eventually wandered off

One more story: For six years I completed most of my errands by driving ten miles round trip to our nearest town. For all those years, I wondered about running my errands on my bicycle instead. And for all those years, people gave me strange looks when I presented my idea. Why would you bicycle? was the immediate reaction. Aside from competitive cyclists in spandex and a handful of guys who look like they had one too many DWI convictions, no one rides a bike in my part of the country. We have roads; you have a car. Why are you talking about bikes?

But one day I put on my helmet, pumped up the tires on my bike and headed out. It felt liberating to zip down the country lanes under my own power, without ever having to fill up at a gas station. So now I make the trip several times a week, weather permitting, whenever I need to pick up some books at the library, go to the bank, or swim laps at the YMCA. It takes three times longer to reach my destinations but in an odd way  my sense of distance shrank. Five miles doesn’t seem so far on a bike. My town now feels closer.

So in this contrarian frame of mind, I started looking at alternatives to outboard motors. If my goal is to have auxiliary power in tight spots or when I want to rush back to port, maybe a small battery-powered trawling motor would do the trick, I thought. And while I’m at it, why not add some solar panels so I can recharge my battery and travel carbon-free? It was an intriguing idea, but I know very little about solar power and I quickly got lost in the unfamiliar language of deep cycle batteries and inverters. For the moment, I am defeated by this particular kind of technology.

So I next took a few steps farther down the technology ladder and wondered about simply rowing my boat. Again, lots of small sailboats are capable of being rowed and one of my favorite boat designers—Phil Bolger—purposefully incorporated rowing capability into some of his most innovative sailboats, including the Birdwatcher. He admitted that few builders were willing to embrace this form of propulsion, but it could be done.

Digging deeper, I decided that sculling might be the most appropriate method of human locomotion for my boat. The sailor stands at the stern, swinging a single long oar with a sweeping motion, somewhat like a Venetian gondolier. I was thrilled to discover a simple device that attaches the oar to the transom and allows even inexperienced scullers to wag the oar back and forth in the most efficient manner. (See the Duckworks catalog for short video of the “Scullmatix” in action)

As all this was going on in my mind, I continued to work on the motor mount, which seemed prudent because, in the end, I might want an outboard. Even contrarians need to make compromises and concede defeat from time to time. For now, I am filled with theories and philosophical convictions. But the wind and waves may have other opinions and, in the end, I’ll defer to their judgment.