Don’t forget to use the boat

May 13, 2011

My eagerness to build boats and, at the moment, finish my Pocket Cruiser has one disadvantage: I sometimes forget to actually use my boats. Day after day, I tinker with my sailboat while my little green canoe sits unused in a corner of the garage.

I made amends today by taking the “Six Hour Canoe” to a nearby lake. Arriving soon after sunrise on a weekday, I had the water all to myself and felt that nature was on full display for my private enjoyment. Birds filled the air and I lost count of the number of great blue herons I startled along the shoreline.

I love the woods and generally take hikes in nearby state parks three or four times a month, but nature looks different from the water and animals act in unexpected ways. Soon after launching I noticed two deer in the treeline—a common sight in rural Pennsylvania. But they surprised me by casually wading into the lake and swimming to the opposite shore—maybe 200 yards across deep water. Their heads were all that I could see—two furry bumps on the calm surface, moving purposefully from one shore to the other. I had never seen deer swim. But, then, I had never seen deer from a canoe.

I was on a large lake dammed and maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers. Farther down, it opens into an impressive body of water and is filled on summer days with dozens of noisy powerboats and jet skis. However, I launched in the upper reaches, far inside a no wake zone, a region used only by fisherman, most working the waters with quiet trolling motors. But even they were largely absent as I explored a deep inlet that eventually turned into a shallow marsh fed by a narrow but navigable stream. I paddled   upstream until it become too narrow even for my canoe, found a spot just wide enough to turn around, and let the current take be back into the lake. Hearing the grasses slide under and around my little boat as I rested the paddle on the gunwales, I felt inexpressibly happy. I was exactly where I wanted to be.

I hugged the shoreline, working my way back to the parking lot as the sun started clearing treetops. I watched turtles sunning themselves on logs and felt quite self satisfied as I poured a mug of French roast coffee from my thermos and scanned the trees for birds, vowing—for the hundredth time—that I would eventually learn to identify more than robins and chickadees.

This trip was also an opportunity to test a small modification to my canoe. The six hour canoe has a high rocker and flat bottom, which makes it hard to track on the water. During my first outings last fall, I noticed that it wanted to skitter around with each push of the paddle. In addition, the flat bottom was easily scraped when dragged in and out of rocky or sandy shorelines. To fix both problems, I decided to attach a small keel— a strip of  1×2 pine down the center of the hull. I tapered the ends and held it in place with six stainless steel screws (a dab of caulking at each screw hole helped create a watertight seal). I finished the job with a coat of paint.

As I hoped, this small addition protected the bottom from scratches and did seem to help keep canoe on track. I felt like a veritable Daniel Boone (who was born nearby) with what I imaged to be my expert handling of a wilderness-worthy canoe. I’m sure I really looked like a middle aged guy on a manmade lake, but a couple of hours of solitude at sunrise can do wonders for a man’s fantasy life.

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Cleaning up after the party

January 7, 2011

Do you know how you feel after eating a large meal when the sight of food—the very thought of food—becomes repellant?

That’s how I started feeling about boat building in November.

Let’s review 2010. Between March and October I spent nearly every free minute working on my Pocket Cruiser. In the process, I ignored important household repairs, watched weeds take over my garden, and—as the crowning touch–developed a serious and worrisome allergic reaction to marine epoxy. I coughed for weeks like a smoker with emphysema. Half of my wardrobe was spattered with glue or paint.

When autumn arrived and I realized that my boat would not be ready to launch before cold weather hit, I suddenly shifted tactics and in less than a month built a plywood canoe, just so that I could say that I had finished something. Working against the clock, I painted the hull in near freezing temperatures and raced to a nearby lake with a couple of crudely built paddles, hours ahead of a cold snap. I paddled around the lake a maniac, barely noticing how spritely the canoe handled.

The canoe hit the water in late October. It was a beautiful day and my twins had a great time trying not to capsize. It moved gracefully and didn't have a single leak, but I was so frazzled that I hardly paused to celebrate.

I am at last posting some pictures of the canoe on its launch day. The day was beautiful and the kids had a good time, but I was exhausted and the event felt like just another item to check off my to do list. I didn’t appreciate the beauty of the lake at the time.

I had worked all summer like a man possessed, and not in a good way. The boat had become more than a hobby. It was no longer my mid-life therapy. And amid the frustrations and self imposed deadlines my enthusiasm waned and my original motivations seemed, at best, distant and unclear. Why did I every think it would be fun to sail down the Chesapeake? Why did I think it was important to fulfill this particular fantasy? Standing in a garage that looked like a woodworker’s war zone—wood scraps, debris, and disorganized boxes filled every corner—I really wanted it all to just go away. I closed the door on the garage and ignored my blog.

And so December passed and the new year arrived.

A Christmas snowstorm provided cover for my ennui. I couldn’t work on the boat even if I wanted to. But a few days ago temperatures climbed into the high 40’s. I wandered outside to refill the bird feeders and started sweeping out our basement. That made me feel better about life, so the next day, I decided to confront some of the chaos in the garage. Not all of it; just one corner. A few hours later I had cleared out piles of old lumber and other junk, sorting it all into neat “donate” and “throw away” piles.

At first I ignored the boat. But as I swept the floor and created new vistas of open space, I finally paused to inspect the Pocket Cruiser. It still seemed dusty and forlorn; an unfinished homemade boat in a dirty garage can, under gloomy florescent lights on a grey winter day, look too much like a crudely assembled plywood box. But as my cleaning progressed, my mood improved, especially after the clouds parted and, for a few minutes, rays of sunlight streamed through the open doorway. For the first time in months, I walked around the boat and thought about what it would take to finish by spring. A bit of my old enthusiasm returned.

So maybe I’ll finish the boat after all and maybe I’ll get around to buying a trailer and—who knows—I might even fulfill my original plan and sail down the Chesapeake. I’m hopeful. But in the meantime, I still need to finish cleaning the garage.