On a whim…

Chaotic, esoteric, marginally coherent, stuff about life.

The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

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A wooden boat with fair curves.

Wooden Boat magazine.

Once, seduced by a picture in a magazine, I built a boat. I was omniscient, a teenager, and I knew I could build “a salty little pram small enough for a ten year old to handle.” I didn’t have a clue about boat design, construction, or the basics of sailing. But heck, neither did Noah! Furthermore, I was a hardened veteran of Mr. Henderson’s woodworking class. In my mind, when it came to ‘making things’, I was a natural.

I had a portfolio of success: a doll sized cradle using nothing but a hand saw, brace and bit, and sweat (and I thought the lopsidedness lent it more credibility as a ‘hand crafted’ treasure), a mahogany three tier table with cabriole legs straight out of the pages of Popular Woodworking with a distinct Italian flair (it leaned a bit), a dog house (that lacked charm) and I built it with a hack saw even after lopping of the knuckle of one thumb. I was persistent! Couldn’t I fell the timber, chew off the bark with my bare teeth , wrestle iron ore from a nearby mountain, and forge nails in my parent’s central heating system…  ?

I was a frugal teen (meaning, I had limited funds earned by mowing lawns) so I sought out adequate lumber for the project. What’s wrong with wood gleaned from old pallets? Why not use cheap plywood than the one called for even if its been stamped with the word “INTERIOR”?

I fought with plywood and warped pine skewering them together with pound after pound of brass screws. (Every dollar I saved on lumber was lost in the pounds upon pounds of brass screws.)

Cover from an old Popluar Mechanics magazine featuring a DIY boat called "Tea Cup"

Popular Mechanics online archive at Google Books

Speaking of brass screws, have you ever held a 1 gross box of them? Astonishing! Ultimately the ‘my lady’, as I liked to call the boat, was a beast whose weight was overwhelming. Unlike some big boned people I know, this clunky dingy lacked grace.  The only thing salty about that boat were the gallons of sweat that soaked into her timbers.

I wish I knew what it was that made me persist with the effort to build the boat. Probably the same thing that made me insist to my fourth grade teacher that my pet duck really really ate my home work. Or, more likely, I was still looking at the picture I imagined it to be and not the able to see it for what it was. So I held on to the vision of it as a creature only needing water to transform it, mermaid like, into an elegant creature.

Some months after I began to build the ark, I persuaded Charles, my skeptical neighbor, to help me launch it. We hauled the glorified transoceanic-shipping-crate on top of  his 1966 Carmen Ghia Coupe. It only goes to show how marvelously engineered those cars were; Figuring the boat weighed close to three hundred pounds the roof of the glorified bug did show a single bruise! Of course I  have no idea why shortly afterward he had to have his clutch replaced.

Driving north of Atlanta, we found a thankfully deserted Corps of Engineers boat launch on Lake Lanier. Marvelous to my eyes were the white caps breaking all across the lake. It was as if the forces of nature wished me a bon voyage worthy of Joshua Slocum.

Just in case you don’t know, Slocum was an early 20th adventurer and sailor who is apparently the first person to sail solo around the world.

In any case, I shoved off. Charles remained on shore to, as he put it, take pictures of me in the boat. More likely he knew better than to board the thing with me having witnessed me stuffing rags into several conspicuous leaks around the keel.   I unfurled the sail, hauled in the sheet (that’s a rope for you land lubbers), and pointed the bow down wind.

Away I went… really away and fast. I was at least 1/4 mile from the launch point when I thought I should ‘come about’ and ‘wear ship’ (I learned the terms from the tales of C.S. Forrester about “Horatio Hornblower” and had no clue that ‘wear ship’ was applied to square rigged ships. What I did know is that I had to turn around and try to work my way back toward shore. Today I would say I needed to come about and make a series of tacks to windward. Back then I think, as I tried to just this, all capacity for speech ceased, froze, and sentient thought yielded to one terrifying certainty, this boat would never ‘tack’. It was more like a paper cup. Albeit a very heavy cup. The wind remorselessly tossed us across the lake.

Lanier is a large artificial reservoir. Given the severity of the wind and the increasing roughness of the water it was doubtful that the boat, or I, would survive long enough to make it all the way across.

While I was doing a remarkable job of looking and acting like a panic stricken fool I saw that a small island (a pile of rock with a few pines) might actually be reachable. I prayed with great devotion unrivaled by any but the most desperate mariners. I also promised that I would never ever again do whatever it was that my teenage mind thought would please the Almighty and then, for good measure, tossed up the idea that I would even go so far as to do the Almighty whatever favor might be pleasing.

More grateful than Robinson Crusoe and luckier than Joshua Slocum (he and his boat were lost at sea and never seen again) I made it to the island. From there I dragged the boat around to a point near the opposite shore from which I had started. The water being shallow, the sail and mast having a bit earlier been ripped from the boat by the wind (and a little help from me), I waded across and summarily hauled the ‘boat’ home.

Seduction is a dangerous thing. It can delude one into thinking something that never was, never will be, or simply can’t be is there for the taking. The sad thing is that in my case the seduction was self imposed and that, probably, is the worst kind of all. I learned a lesson that day. Always, always be sure to use better wood.

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Written by David Wilkerson

1 August 2012 at 8:48 pm

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